Outspoken Nigerian musician Fela Kuti led a vibrant life – one that US filmmaker Alex Gibney lays out in too-plain fashion in his latest doc. But props for the warts-and-all approach: you’ll hear plenty about Kuti’s achievements in Afrobeat and the righteous salvos he launched against his country’s oppressive government, but also lots of darker stuff, not least his till-death denial of his HIV status.
Fela was a walking contradiction, and the film is best whenever Gibney shows his interviewees struggling with this. Choreographer-director Bill T Jones is one of the most interesting voices in this regard. He’s the creative mind behind the musical ‘Fela!’, and Gibney gets plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the stage production, as Jones talks his way through and around his subject’s rough edges. Try as he might, he can’t quite reconcile art and artist.
These scenes make you wish the rest of the movie had similar bite, but Gibney tends toward that dutiful doc style that mixes talking heads and archival clips into a flavourless stew – a bland complement to Fela’s zesty on and offstage presence. Luckily, this virtuoso’s charisma and ability to use music as a pulsating form of protest come through loud and clear.